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Guiana dreams

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published in the catalogue for Paramaribo SPAN, an exhibition of works by contemporary Surinamese and Dutch artists at various locations in Paramaribo,
26 February to 14 March, 2010


“When we begin to fix our eyes on geographical maps, and to read the narratives of navigators, we feel for certain countries and climates a sort of predilection, which we know not how to account for....”

Alexander von Humboldt,
Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Region

of the New Continent, During the Years 1799 to 1804


Novus Orbis, the New World, is no newer than the Old. When Columbus decided he’d arrived in the Indies, he was twelve thousand miles off his mark. America was so dubbed by a German cartographer misled by a forged letter. Antillia, an imaginary island of seven cities, lent its name to the archipelago that divides the warmer Caribbean Sea from the colder Atlantic.

Geography is not merely a collection of facts and statistics: the heights of mountains and lengths of rivers and fathoms of the sea. It is also a fabric of wishes and hopes, lies and misunderstandings, metaphors and fictions: dreams of Northwest Passages and Shangri-Las, lost cities and fountains of youth, Edens and Hells on earth.
Here is a geographical assertion that is part metaphor, part hope: that the region of South America through which flow the rivers Essequibo, Demerara, Corentyne, Saramacca, Suriname, Maroni, Cayenne, and Approuague is somehow part of the Caribbean, which is otherwise composed of islands.
Here is another: that this shoulder of the continent is itself a sort of island, whose bounding waters are the Atlantic, the Orinoco, and the Amazon and its tributaries. The million square miles thus insulated by rivers from the rest of South America are sometimes called the island of Guiana.
Today this region of mountains, rivers, forests, and savannahs is divided among Venezuela to the west, Brazil to the south and east, and the three territories once known as British, Dutch, and French Guiana — now independent Guyana and Suriname, and the French département d’outre-mer of Guyane. For journalists sent here to scribble a colour piece for a metropolitan magazine, the checklist of clichés includes some kind of joke about these peculiar and unrecognisable names. [1] Guiana — I use the old spelling with an i to distinguish the whole region — has drifted to the fringes of the world’s attention. But these million square miles between the Amazon and the Orinoco were bitterly coveted and contested in earlier centuries of the colonial enterprise, and the metaphors and fictions born here in the fevered minds of European adventurers stubbornly persist in the cultural imagination of the Western world.
To its first European visitors, Guiana represented the possibility of (literally) fabulous wealth. In the early decades of the sixteenth century, a legend spread among the conquistadors of a city of gold somewhere in the terra incognita between the Andes and the Atlantic. One expedition after another set out in search of El Dorado, only to end in disappointment or death. By the end of the century the legend reached the ears of Walter Ralegh in London. In 1595 he sailed across the Atlantic and into the Orinoco delta. He explored for a mere six weeks and went no further than 150 miles upriver. Treasure eluded him; fancy did not. His account of this journey, The Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana (1596), borrowed liberally from other travellers’ tales, and lyrically described wonders which Ralegh never saw: mountains of crystal, a huge waterfall with the roar of a thousand bells. Equal parts real estate prospectus, adventure journal, and personal apologia, the Discovery did more than any other written account to fix the dream of El Dorado in the world’s consciousness.

This was “the most beautiful country that ever mine eyes beheld,” Ralegh wrote. “Plains of twenty miles in length, the grass short and green, and in divers parts groves of trees by themselves, as if they had been by all the art and labour in the world so made of purpose ... the deer came down feeding by the water’s side as if they had been used to a keeper’s call.” And this park-like paradise was waiting to be possessed. “Guiana is a country that hath yet her maidenhead,” Ralegh concluded. He was just the suitor to deflower her, should the right investor put up funds to pay for ships, supplies, and men.
This vision of fertility — of a promised land of fruit ripe for plucking — encouraged efforts by the English and the Dutch to settle the Guiana coast in the seventeenth century. Images of tropical bounty were rendered on canvas by artists like Frans Post — who spent eight years (1636 to 1644) in what was then Dutch Brazil, the region around Recife — and Dirk Valkenburg, who travelled to Suriname in 1706, where he painted landscapes and genre scenes like slave dances. These artists found an eager market for their depictions of the exotic among the prosperous middle class of the Netherlands. For a wealthy merchant in Amsterdam, a Suriname landscape on his parlour wall signalled a trendy curiosity about the world’s frontiers, and perhaps at the same time pointed to one of the sources of his fortune.

But these lush scenes had their sinister side. Equatorial forests, picturesque in a gilded frame, were in fact oppressively hot and humid, full of ensnaring and poisonous vegetation, strange noises, and carnivorous creatures of all sizes — not to mention hostile natives, liable to assert their presence with a shower of poisoned arrows. Early explorers’ accounts of the Guianas and the Amazon basin are narratives of anxiety and hunger. Into the “green hell” of the jungle countless white men disappeared without a trace, a titillating idea which has inspired scores of novels and Hollywood movies.

The most pervasively influential of these adventure fictions must be Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912), which lent its name to a whole subgenre. “Lost world” stories share a classic formula: a remote location in the tropics, whether secret valley, island, or mountaintop; a band of intrepid adventurers, with some perilous mission; the discovery of a forgotten civilisation, a primitive race, or bloodthirsty monsters; and some form of treasure for a heroes’ reward. In Conan Doyle’s original, the eccentric Professor Challenger leads an expedition to an uncharted mountain in South America, which proves to host dinosaurs that have mysteriously survived the aeons, ape-men who must be beaten into submission, and massive diamonds.

The Lost World’s plot elements recur in books and films ranging from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Land that Time Forgot (1924) to King Kong (1933) to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990) and the herpetophobic Anaconda (1997). But Conan Doyle’s narrative was itself indebted to the reports of Everard im Thurn, the British explorer who in 1884 led the first known ascent of “unclimbable” Roraima, the flat-topped mountain where the borders of Venezuela, Brazil, and then-British Guiana converge. News of this conquest, telegraphed from Georgetown, was an international press sensation.

Scientific reports and adventure tales alike helped establish another enduring trope: the Guiana region — and wider tropical America — as a setting for quests and journeys through hardship and hazard. Sometimes the challenge is undertaken on behalf of monarch or nation or science. The ostensible objective may be some distant location — lost city, river source — a new species, or the thrill of danger itself. But the underlying purpose is to demonstrate mastery, whether of savage nature, savage Indians, or the adventurer’s own fears. The forays of the early conquistadors — Francisco de Orellana, Lope de Aguirre — belong to this tradition. So too, in his way, does Alexander von Humboldt, who recorded his five-year circuit through northern South America in the monumental thirty-volume Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (1807–1833), a key text in the history of botany, geology, and meteorology. In emulation, a generation of naturalist-explorers fanned out across the Neotropics laden with the instruments required for “Humboldtian” empirical observation.

King-and-country ideals did not motivate the half-Scottish, half-Dutch John Gabriel Stedman, who arrived in Suriname in 1773 to fight a guerilla war. A career soldier who re-enlisted to help cover family debts, Stedman was dispatched to subjugate the insurgent Maroons of the colony’s eastern district. He lasted five years, engaged in seven separate campaigns, and observed firsthand the brutal punishments inflicted on enslaved Africans. Back in Europe, he turned his journal into The Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. Published in 1796 by a London radical, Stedman’s Narrative was seized upon by British abolitionists as a document of the atrocities of plantation slavery. It was a best-seller.
In his opening pages, Stedman reports his dismay at the sight of a young enslaved woman with her skin in shreds. “The crime which had been committed by this miserable victim of tyranny,” he wrote, “was the non-performance of a task to which she was apparently unequal, for which she was sentenced to receive two hundred lashes.” Later chapters describe whippings, hangings, mutilations, and a slave suspended by a hook through his ribs from a gallows. William Blake’s illustration of this last enormity became one of most horribly familiar visual representations of New World slavery. [2] But the devious cruelty of Suriname planters was a commonplace decades before Stedman, even satirised by Voltaire in Candide (1759).

The idea of the Guiana region as a place of suffering, a heart of darkness, thrived long after the end of slavery. The Dreyfus Affair, the political scandal which exploded in Paris in 1894 after the unjust treason conviction of a Jewish army officer, cast a searching light on the penal camps of French Guiana. Alfred Dreyfus’s sufferings on Devil’s Island were detailed by an avid press. Journalists continued to report on unspeakable conditions in the bagne — malnutrition, disease, backbreaking labour — until the camps were shut down after the Second World War.

Then in 1978 came the event that has most indelibly coloured contemporary awareness of this part of the world: the Jonestown massacre. The deaths of over nine hundred men, women, and children in the forest of northwest Guyana were the last chapter of a story that began in the United States, where the self-proclaimed prophet Jim Jones founded his Peoples Temple cult on a doctrine of socialism, perverted by megalomania. Like others before him, Jones saw Guyana as virgin territory, a building-site for his own tropical utopia. The nightmarish collapse of Jonestown into mass suicide and murder was an American story more than a Guyanese one, but it reinforced the idea of Guyana — or Guiana — as one of the dark places of the earth.

Paradoxically, Guiana has also been imagined as a place of primal innocence and timeless wisdom, portrayed through its indigenous peoples, and latterly through the Maroons of Suriname and Guyane. Ralegh “marvelled” to find men of “gravity and judgment” among the Amerindians of the Orinoco, “that had no help of learning nor breed.” Michel de Montaigne’s famous essay “Of Cannibals” (1580) favourably contrasts the indigenous “nations” of South America, “still very close to their original naturalness ... in such a state of purity,” with contemporary Europe, racked by wars of religion. The title character of Oroonoko (1688), the novel by the English writer Aphra Behn, is an African prince deceived into slavery and shipped to Suriname. “The most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man,” Behn declares, “both for greatness of courage and mind, a judgment more solid, a wit more quick.” Oroonoko dies horrifically, dismembered by order of the English governor, after he leads a slave revolt. Thomas Southerne’s stage adaptation, first performed in 1695, remained popular with audiences into Victorian times, promoting the idea of the “noble savage”. [3]

This notion of peoples “close to their original naturalness” — uncorrupted by modern civilisation — may be the most insidiously durable stereotype of Guiana. Soothing to postcolonial Western guilt, it also makes nice copy for tourist brochures. Today’s visitors to Guyana, Suriname, and Guyane pay good dollars or euros to experience life in an “authentic” Amerindian or Maroon village, and acquire the tranquil illuminations that supposedly thrive in a pre-electric world.

In the twenty-first century, no one dares use a term like “noble savage” without irony, but the concept of exotic purity endures. The Riverbones, a recent travel narrative (published in 2008), does its best to resist easy stereotypes, but its well-meaning young Canadian author finds himself “stumbling after Eden in the jungles of Suriname”, as his subtitle has it. Struggling with personal angst far in the interior, Andrew Westoll compares the pain of separation from his girlfriend with “the monumental struggles of a beautiful, bountiful nation.” On the final page he encounters the rare blue frog that’s obsessed him for months. “I am holding the quintessential spirit of Suriname,” he says, “the soul of the last Eden, in the palm of my hand.”

Who knew paradise was small enough to grasp?


“How do you make a destination for others into a home for the self?”
Mary Louise Pratt (quoting Horacio Quiroga),
Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation,
2nd edition (2008)

Every place on earth is haunted by stereotypes. But some are more haunted than others, and some places are more tenaciously bound by the metaphors and fictions spun around them.

For the better part of five centuries, the region of South America that we might call the island of Guiana has been tethered in the imagination of the West as a geography to be explored and exploited, endured and adventured in, but not as a place to truly make a home. [4] The Dutch and the English built plantations and ports in their Guiana colonies. The French built prisons. Desired raw materials were shipped out, and undesirable men shipped in. That societies evolved here — hybrid communities where cultural elements from four continents collide and collude — was an accident of history.

Now we find ourselves in what we like to call a postcolonial age, having exchanged flags in a series of midnight ceremonies over the past forty years. But capital-I Independence has not made us less reliant on global economies, whether of finance, trade, or ideas. We depend as much as ever on foreign dollars and attention. And the world’s regard still filters through a persistent swaddle of stories we did not tell, images we did not make.

The predicament might be summarised in the question quoted by the literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt, in her study of the ways travel literature has portrayed Latin America and Africa for European readers. How does “a destination for others” — a place that has been described and depicted mostly by others from elsewhere, with their own missions and prejudices — a place like Guiana, like Suriname, like the Caribbean — become “a home for the self”, for the real women and men who are born here, raise families, and work to achieve safe and comfortable lives? This big question touches on matters of political self-determination, cultural self-assertion, personal self-comprehension, and is specially urgent for those — our artists, our writers — whose labour it is to imagine new stories to replace the old ones that have trapped us.

Artists everywhere grapple with doubts about relevance and audience and income. But in Suriname, in the Caribbean, the smallness of our societies intensifies the struggle. The artist’s options can appear vexing. Fall back on local social networks offering patronage and flattery? Adopt the vocabulary and gestures currently fashionable in foreign academies, and try to catch the eye of a visiting curator? Resort to approved motifs of ancestral heritage and play the role of the “intuitive” or “primitive”, hoping to be recognised as authentically exotic?

Initiatives like ArtRoPa, arranging working exchanges between artists in Suriname and the Netherlands — or like the Wakaman Project, instigating creative partnerships between Surinamese artists at home and abroad — or like Paramaribo Span, building a platform to share the work of artists in Suriname with audiences elsewhere — seem to offer the possibility of stepping past the limits of a small place, the chance to infiltrate the wider world with our own metaphors and hopes. But, inevitably, old fictions intervene, and artists often find themselves and their audiences snarled in preconceptions of what Surinamese (or Caribbean) art should look like, what its acceptable subjects might be, how it should “read”, what it could mean. [5]

An artist’s job is to create something meaningful — an object, an experience, a sensation — in the space where personal vision and ambition meet opportunity and social circumstance. The dimensions of that space are constantly shifting, and one way to define an artist’s success is by the range of the creative territory he or she is able to inhabit. For artists from parts of the world that have long been “destinations for others”, the space of potential action, and the ways their work can be received and understood, are bounded by the old imaginary geography. [6] Before we can cross that boundary — or shift it, or erase it — we must both see it and recognise it for what it is: a confining fantasy of the exotic with a long history and a heady allure.

Metaphors have alarming longevity. The New World, five centuries later, is still “new”. To kill a story requires a more powerful story, a more resonant fiction. And re-charting the domain of our hopes and fears — our creative space, our “home for the self” — whether we give that home the name of a nation or a region, Suriname, Guiana, the Caribbean — demands immense and sustained feats of imagination. It demands that we invent new images and new languages to describe and debate our own real world, its scope and its span. It demands powerful and resonant new dreams. +
1. For example: “Seldom has a country been as easily and as regularly confused with somewhere else: Ghana on the western coast of Africa, Guyana east of Venezuela, Guinea next to Senegal, Equatorial Guinea below Cameroon….” Alain de Botton on French Guiana, writing in The Faster Times, 13 July, 2009
2. “Eventually it seemed as if every literate European was familiar with the gruesome picture....” P.C. Emmer, The Dutch Slave Trade, 1500–1850 (2006)
3. Some scholars have also interpreted the apparently toponymous character of Oroonoko as an allegorical embodiment of Guiana — the region southeast of the Orinoco — as a place of natural harmony and dignity brutalised by European colonisation.
4. Implicit in this imaginary is the idea that places like Guiana — and for that matter the Caribbean — are properly outside the modern, outside the mainstream timescale of cultural and political development; when in fact, as even the most cursory reflection on history makes clear, tropical America has been an essential node of the modern world since at least 1492. Columbus’s fateful footfall on a beach on an island which he promptly (and tellingly) rechristened triggered a sharp acceleration in the gears of European globalisation, capitalism, and technological evolution.
5. Of course, it is not only the fantasies of the foreign imagination that entangle us. In our recently independent states, the idea of “national” culture and identity is a labyrinth of competing ethnic and class ideals, jealousies, prejudices, disputes, culpabilities, and claims — a maze with no clear centre or route to an exit. The “nation” also confines.
6. The boundary has traps on both sides. For foreign artists who try to engage with Suriname (or the Caribbean), it’s thrillingly easy to fall back on old fantasies — of virgin paradise, quest for adventure, last Eden — and imagine a place like this as an exotic dream. It is as unsurprising as it is galling that a Dutch artist making work inspired by Suriname — or a British artist with Trinidad, an American with the Bahamas — will likely find a readier market than any Surinamese, Trinidadian, or Bahamian artist ever could in the “real” world of metropolitan galleries and collectors. The patterns of history repeat: right now in Amsterdam or London or New York, an art dealer or curator awaits some expat artist’s exotica with the same relish those old Dutch merchants felt on acquiring the paintings of Post and Valkenburg.